Reusse: DeLaSalle’s ascension to state swim title began at Ascension

The list of state boys’ swimming champions starts with Minneapolis Central in 1924, followed by a long period of domination by Iron Range schools, with Rochester as an interloper.

Edina became the first metro school since Central to win a state boys title in 1965. That started a run of three decades where the one-class championship went to public high schools from the Twin Cities suburbs.

There was an exception to this — DeLaSalle in 1979 — that goes from an oddity to an impossibility when discovering the Islanders had a five-person team, with four qualified for the state meet.

The favorite was Minnetonka, the defending champion and coached by Paul Stearns, a future Gophers coach.

This was the fifth year that private schools had been admitted to the Minnesota State High School League. DeLaSalle had a successful swimming history in state Catholic and independent meets, although often chasing St. Thomas Academy.

DeLaSalle’s success was traced to Ascension Swim Club, located in a three-level activities building (basement included) serving the Church of Ascension Parish on 17th and Dupont in north Minneapolis. It also was here DeLaSalle held swim practice.

The gym was upstairs (and remains so) and the now-gone pool was in the basement, four lanes and 20 yards in length.

Jean Freeman swam and then helped Carroll Gustafson coach at Ascension, before becoming the Gophers’ pioneer coach for women’s swimming. The university aquatics center is named in her honor.

The senior standouts for the ’79 Islanders — Eric Sandberg, Mark Salchert and Mark Kucala — swam for Ascension, as did junior Bill Weiss. Freshman Pat Ivory was the lone non-Ascension swimmer, and it was his desperate finish in the 200-yard relay that propelled DeLaSalle to the upset title.

The rules of the time limited individuals to three events, with one of those required to be a relay.

Sandberg, ranked third nationally among high school sprinters, won the 50- and 100-yard freestyles. Salchert won the 200 individual medley and finished third in the backstroke. Kucala finished third in the breaststroke.

The medley relay was the first event of the finals. One day earlier, Minnetonka’s powerful unit had somehow finished seventh among 12 foursomes in qualifying time.

“That meant Minnetonka was in the consolation race,” said John Wendt, DeLaSalle assistant coach. “They swam the relay one second faster than we did the second day, but all that meant was seventh place.”

Bill Freeman, Jean’s brother and the DeLaSalle coach, jerry-rigged the medley with Sandberg in the butterfly, the plan being that Salchert, Kucala and Sandberg could give a sizable lead to Ivory for the last 50 yards of freestyle.

“Dan Schirmers from St. Cloud Tech and Dave Melmar from St. Louis Park were coming like freight trains, but our freshman held on by inches,” Wendt said.

DeLaSalle finished with 111 points to 99 for Minnetonka. “We swam with the public high schools in the state meet for the first time as eighth-graders in 1975 and finished 32nd,” Salchert said. “We were 16th as freshmen, 10th as sophomores, second as juniors and first as seniors.

“We didn’t have enough swimmers to have a second relay team, and we won it. Amazing.”

So was this, with the Ascension program closing, and DeLaSalle down to two returning swimmers — Weiss and Ivory — the Islanders ceased the program after that championship.

The Miracle of Cooke Hall was secured in Islanders history a few years back when the 1979 swimming team was inducted into DeLaSalle’s Hall of Fame.

“That got us back together and we were meeting for lunch regularly, before the pandemic,” Sandberg said. “Telling stories about ‘Gus’ and Ascension never gets old.”

PLUS THREE

• Gustafson considered the Ascension pool so important to the North Side that, during the Minneapolis riots of 1967, he declared, “The pool stays open,” and it did.

• DeLaSalle was one of a number of high schools with a water polo grogram in that era, and Wendt was the coach. Sandberg, Kucala and Salchert all played for Wendt, who also coached water polo at Minnesota.

• John and “Cheers” legend George Wendt are first cousins and raised in Chicago. “Hand on the Bible, George went to Notre Dame as a legacy, discovered he liked beer and was called to Father [Theodore] Hesburgh’s office to discuss his 0.00 grade point,” John said. “Cousin George transferred to Rockhurst and got a degree.”

Write to Reusse by e-mailing [email protected] and including his name in the subject line.

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